Propriété Caillebotte: Experiencing the daily life of a great Impressionist
Text: Katie Turner
“He was a shooting star. Burning very brightly but dying at the relatively young age of 45. He lived a full and magical life,” says Valérie Dupont-Aignan, the director of the Propriété Caillebotte in Yerres, half an hour south of Paris. Her ‘shooting star’ is Gustave Caillebotte, one of the best-known artists and patrons of the Impressionist movement, and the painter of such masterpieces as The Floor Planers which is now on display at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay.
Valérie Dupont-Aignan runs the artist’s former home and certainly knows 19th-century French art. “I’d recommend visiting the Musée d’Orsay in the morning to get a feel for the Impressionists. Then get the train out here for the afternoon. You’ll get a real sense of the period and Gustave Caillebotte’s pivotal role in it.”
Caillebotte was born into a wealthy upper-class French family and had no need to work, but was highly educated and took an interest in art, photography and gardening, as well as being a prolific collector of stamps. The family moved to the property in 1860, when Gustave was 12 years old. It would have been the perfect counterpoint to life in Paris, which was in the throes of being developed by Georges-Eugene Haussmann and would have been dirty and chaotic.
“You can’t underestimate the effect the estate had on him. He hadn’t had that much exposure to ‘real life’ and how people lived and worked if they didn’t have money,” explains the property’s director. At the Propriété Caillebotte he would have been surrounded by workers keeping the house and grounds in order, and what better backdrop for his work?
“You can take a trip around the world just walking in these gardens,” says Valérie Dupont-Aignan. “From the semi-circular portico featuring figures from Greek mythology, to the Palladian front of the main house which conjures up visions of Italy, the pavilion evoking the Silk Road and our covered bench where one could imagine Japanese tea ceremonies taking place: it’s all here in the 27 acres surrounding the house.”
The property’s vegetable patch, painted several times by Caillebotte, is another jewel to discover. It’s still in use today as it would have been when he lived here. Volunteer gardeners plant and nurture a variety of fruit and vegetables on the plot as well as showing visitors around.
Restoring the property
The property’s director has been involved with the estate since 1995, after coming to Yerres when her husband was elected mayor. “The first time I saw this house it was completely derelict, rainwater was leaking through the roof and windows were smashed. The place had been looted. It was heartbreaking,” she remembers. After a painstaking 20-year renovation, the house reopened in 2017.
Restoring the property to its former glory has been a labour of love. The French Government supported the project and even intervened to protect some treasures which would otherwise have been sold at auction. “In September 2016, I came back from holiday to an email saying some Empire bedroom furniture, which was totally in keeping with the house, was up for sale. It would have been an immense loss, because when you see it up on the first floor it takes your breath away. It’s now listed and can’t leave France,” says Valérie Dupont-Aignan proudly.
There are numerous exhibitions on the site, including in the gardens, which are the perfect setting for displaying sculptures. The philosophy of those managing the estate is to rotate between art from the 19th century, reflecting Caillebotte’s experiences, and exhibiting contemporary artists, “Bringing exhibitions right up to date is how we stay close to Caillebotte and his vision of promoting the work of his own time. He was such an important patron for the Impressionists, who weren’t always admired as they are today,” explains Valérie Dupont-Aignan.
This year, visitors can discover several of Caillebotte’s own works at the Artist’s Studio in the 19th Century exhibition, which runs until the end of October. “He painted a lot in nature, especially in these gardens, as many of the Impressionists did. But lots of the detail was added here in the very studio where we’re exhibiting the works. It’s very exciting.”
All the information accompanying exhibitions, as well as the house and gardens, is available in English. You can pick up an iPad on arrival and take a tour on that, or download the app before you get here for an augmented reality experience.
“We want to make sure visitors come back,” says the Propriété Caillebotte’s director, “We want people to get out of Paris and come and enjoy art and artists in this little corner of paradise.”
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